Which Ancestry DNA Test Is Right for You?
You would be the rare person if you hadn’t heard or seen an advertisement for an ancestry DNA testing service in the past year. With the advances made in genealogical DNA testing, companies are now able to offer insights into your ancestry and health with a simple, non-invasive DNA test. It’s an exciting opportunity to learn more about yourself and where your ancestors came from, but there are several considerations to make before you commit to purchasing one or more of these companies’ tests, including cost, genetic privacy terms (DNA data storage, sharing, use by companies for research and profit, etc.), and what exactly the tests can tell you.
Before comparison shopping between the top companies, here’s a quick review of the science basics behind the types of DNA testing to help you make the best choice for what you want to know.
The science behind it all
DNA is a long chemical code that determines the characteristics of all living organisms. Each chain of DNA is divided into chromosomes, which are in turn divided into genes. Humans have 23 pairs (so 46 in total) of chromosomes: 23 from our mother and 23 from our father. Women have an XX chromosome pair while men have an XY pairing. It’s important to know this because some DNA tests will only look at the chromosomes passed down from the mother or the father.
An autosomal DNA test looks at the DNA you inherit from all of your ancestors through every line of your family tree. The results will give you an estimate of ethnicity, the regions of the world where your ancestors lived within the past few hundred years, and probable matches to distant relatives.
Y-DNA tests can only be taken by males (remember their XY chromosome pairing) and traces the DNA they inherit from their paternal direct line (dad, dad’s father, his father, etc.). Because the Y-chromosome changes very little through generations, this testing allows men to trace their paternal heritage back thousands of years.
mtDNA tests are for men and women and traces the direct maternal line (mom’s mother, her mother, etc.).
Regardless of the type of testing offered by companies, the DNA retrieval kits work pretty much the same: you set up a profile on the company’s website, answer a few questions about yourself, order your kit, collect your sample (either a spit sample or cheek swab), register your kit, and mail it back. Then you wait for your results, which usually come in four to eight weeks.
Below are the four most popular ancestry DNA companies currently on the market.
Ancestry has the largest database of DNA information from which to compare and relate submitted DNA — over 10 million entries, in fact. This means it’s the best option for linking your DNA to an online family tree and discovering long-lost or distant relatives. It’s the popular choice for amature genealogists. Ancestry conducts the autosomal test, connects samples to over 350 regions, and allows you to contact possible relatives anonymously, all for $99.
FamilyTreeDNA (FTDNA) is one of the longest-running testing companies and offers autosomal, Y-DNA, and mtDNA testing. Depending on the testing package, prices run from $79 to $649. There are no known privacy concerns regarding FTDNA’s terms and conditions and the company will only store your DNA on record for 25 years. While you can reach out to possible genealogical matches via email on FTDNA, it has one of the smallest DNA databases and only traces ancestry to 24 geographic regions.
MyHeritage boasts the third largest DNA database (1.5 million entries) and is one of the best choices for linking your DNA to an online family tree. They have a clean record when it comes to genetic privacy concerns, offer an opt-out option when it comes to sharing your results in aggregated data, and only store DNA data for 25 years. MyHeritage conducts an autosomal test and links DNA to 42 regions for the starting price of $79, although additional membership fees are required to take advantage of all features and tools. You can contact DNA matches through email.
23andMe is the only choice among these companies for health screening and offers insight on physical traits, wellness, carrier status for certain genetic mutations, and risk for diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and increased risk for breast cancer. Depending on which testing you want done — autosomal, Y-DNA, or mtDNA — prices range from $99 to $199. Although it has a database of over five million and links to 150 geographic regions, it does not offer a family tree service and allows only limited opportunities to contact genetic matches.
Similar privacy complaints and concerns to those leveled at Ancestry have been brought against 23andMe in regard to their data storage and sharing policies.